Sermon preached September 22, 2013
Texts: Luke 16:1-9
Last weekend, we watched a very entertaining movie starring Matthew McConaughey entitled “The Lincoln Lawyer.” The movie is based upon novels written by Michael Connelly. McConaughey plays Mickey Haller “L.A.’s top criminal defense lawyer – a fast-living, freewheeling pro who does business out of the back seat of his classic Lincoln Town Car” (from the back of the dvd). Haller is not above skirting some of the legal niceties. He sends gifts to court officials so as to get inside information about his cases. He takes money from a motorcycle gang, to defend one of their own, but does so under some false pretenses. The movie was very entertaining and engaging – intense and suspenseful. McConaughey’s Mickey Haller is a familiar type of character in our movies, television, and fiction – the kindhearted rogue or the loveable outlaw.
The kindhearted rogue, one whose heart and intentions are in the right place, who wants to do good, and is willing to short-circuit what it considered proper or even legal, is a familiar character. So, too, the loveable outlaw. We see this character in Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry. We see it in James Garner’s Jim Rockford, a private detective who would impersonate others when needed. We see it in Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man. I would guess that many of us have our favorite kindhearted loveable outlaw or rogue.
Jesus seems to have a soft spot for such characters, too. At least he does in the story he tells today. A manager for a rich man is taken to task for not managing responsibly. The rich man wants an accounting of the manager’s work as he is being let go. The manager says to himself, “What will I do, now that my master is taking the position away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg. I have decided what to do, so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.” The manager goes about reducing the debt of those who owed the rich man money. And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly.
Strange story in many ways. Why would the rich man approve of the actions of his manager? The manager may have had authority to lessen debt. What he may have been cutting was his share, not what had been owed the rich man in the first place, and perhaps thereby even increasing the likelihood that the rich man would be re-paid. Being a shrewd business man himself, the rich man admires the manager, appreciates his street smarts, his wit. His actions may seem crazy, but he is crazy like a fox.
In telling this story, Jesus, too seems to admire the manager. Is he advocating corruption, business deals that are not on the up and up? I don’t think so. Like novelists, television writers and movie makers today, Jesus tells an engaging story to get us to think. What Jesus is getting us to think about is thinking, is questioning, is discerning.
This coming week in your church newsletter you will receive a copy of a Member Covenant for First United Methodist Church. My article in the newsletter describes what this is about, and I don’t want to go into all of that this morning. I want to mention one part of this covenant. One part of the covenant says that as a congregation we pledge to “support the growth of a thoughtful, passionate, compassionate faith in all who come to First UMC.” The kind of Christian faith we want to nurture here is a thoughtful, passionate and compassionate faith.
So here is one version of Christian faith. You say “yes” to Jesus. Some may call that conversion. Some may call that being born again. You say “yes’ to Jesus and then you look into the Bible as an answer book, that gives you all the answers you need in your life if you just read it rightly.
I found a church that has quite a presence on the internet, and is a good example of what I am talking about. It is also a real church community. The church, in its statement of beliefs says this: The sole basis of our beliefs is the Bible, the 66 books of the Old and New Testaments. It was uniquely, verbally, and fully inspired by the Holy Spirit and was written without error in the original manuscript. It is the supreme and final authority in faith and life in every age. From that base, the church has among its core values the following: We believe that God designed men and women to be different. The husband and wife have differing but complementary roles in the family. The husband is the head of the household, loving and leading his wife, as Christ as his example. The wife is to support and respect her husband. I wanted to find out more about what that might mean so I listened to parts of four sermons in a series “How Should a Man Really Love his Wife.” By the way the shortest of the sermons was about how a woman should love her husband and it was 26 minutes long, the longest was 53 minutes long. Just saying. Anyway, in the briefest sermon, the pastor said to women: “Here’s how God wants you to be: sweet, gentle, gracious, kind, responsive, cooperative and respectful.” Now there is nothing wrong with any of those things, but is that really a complete list of the qualities we want to see in women? Where is strength, or courage?
I am not interested in an extended discussion of this theology, only wanting to note that the kind of Christian faith that some churches put forward is one where you say “yes” to Jesus, and then find all your answers in the Bible. This may not be a “thoughtful faith,” that is, one that asks questions and invites thinking.
Let me be clear about something here. There are places where very definite biblical values don’t leave a lot of room for debate. If we follow Jesus, for instance, I think murder is out. Stealing is out. Lying seems out. I am just taking some of the basics from the Ten Commandments. Seems pretty straightforward. Not all cats are gray, afterall.
But have you ever asked, “Is all killing murder?” If so, followers of Jesus should not be in the military. What constitutes a lie? Your loved one comes to you and says, “how do I look in this?” You can tell she or he really likes the outfit but it is not your favorite. Do you fudge a bit? Is that a lie, or are you acting out of care for someone you love?
What about other questions that confront us in our lives? What should I do with my life? What vocation should I choose? What sorts of outreach should I choose as I seek to share the love of God in Jesus? Afterall, there is more good to be done in the world than anyone of us can do.
Jesus holds up a loveable rogue to help us admire his thoughtfulness, his thinking, his questioning, his discerning. A thoughtful Christian faith takes discernment seriously. Here are a couple of good descriptions of discernment.
[Discernment]… a set of attitudes and practices by which we willingly open our hearts to the heart of God, our minds to the mind of God, our intentions to the purpose of God. (Gil Rendle and Alice Mann, Holy Conversations, 139) Discernment does not simply confirm our hunches or intuitions. Instead, it is a perilous practice that involves self-criticism, questions, and risk – and it often redirects our lives. (Diana Butler Bass, Christianity For the Rest of Us, 95)
The idea that we have to think about our faith, deeply and critically, is rooted in a theological perspective. God’s creative word meets our condition, emerging quietly and most often unnoticeably in the midst of who and where we are (Marjorie Suchocki, The Whispered Word, 4). God’s word is hidden incarnationally in the world. It is a whisper. Suchocki, 6)
Jesus praises a loveable rogue because he understands our need to be thoughtful, questioning, sharp witted in our journey of faith. John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist stream of the Christian tradition may also have understood some of this when he put forward the idea that in making decisions about life and faith, Christians need to consult Scripture, which remains central to our faith, but also tradition, reason and experience. On this journey of faith we need to be thoughtful, thinking, questioning, pondering. We need to do that together. Together we need to be a community of conversation and action.
Two final thoughts this morning about a thoughtful, discerning faith. A thoughtful Christian faith really is a journey, an on-going process of growth. That makes it both uncomfortable sometimes, but also makes it an adventure. Joan Chittester writes these wise words. Life is an accumulation of becomings, all of them important, none of them complete…. Because life tests us, we must not fear to test life. Every decision must be reviewed, every impulse evaluated. Then we will only be where we are because where we are is still right for us, still teaching us what we dearly need to know. (Called To Question, 56, 60)
The life of faith is an adventure. We need to keep saying “yes” to Jesus as we think about what it means to follow him in our complex world. Yet the God we know in Jesus, this Spirit that always seems to be somewhere on the horizon always beckoning us forward, is also an ever-present companion. God is not like that irate rich man, leaving us to our own devices. God is with us. The poet Mary Oliver put it well (“Look and See”):
Oh Lord, how shining and festive is your gift to us, if we
only look, and see.
Only look and see – discernment.
Look, see, think, dream, imagine, question. Be crazy like a fox. Grow a thoughtful faith, by God’s grace and Spirit. Amen.